We woke up about 7am on Wednesday morning and found ourselves in a bright sunny morning in Lviv. It looked like an interesting city, from the train window at least, with tall church spires and imposing buildings. It seemed less scary and Ukrainian than Chop had done in the early hours of the morning. The rest of Ukraine which we passed through for the remainder of the day was rather flat and uneventful. We didn’t go past many settlements, and the most human habitation we saw were little farmsteads. People seemed to go in for white ducks and geese in a big way, which was nice. There were a few beautiful fields of sunflowers, but otherwise there just seemed to be an awful lot of grass which no one was doing anything very useful with. For hours at a time, the view would be blocked by tall avenues of trees so that we stood no chance of seeing where we actually were. I read in the guide book later than this was partially a deliberate tactic on the part of the USSR, who had wanted to hide anything of potential military importance from train passengers.
I am sure that the distance between Lviv and Kiev is substantial, but I am equally sure that the train could have got there sooner if it had gone just a little bit faster. Whenever we passed a road, we were being lapped by even the oldest, most Soviet-looking of vehicles. I don’t know why the train had to go at such a creeping pace, perhaps because the tracks are so old. We were due in to Kiev at 20.02 and about 18.30 I was starting to feel like I’d been on the train for long enough now and would be glad to stretch my legs. Somewhat to my surprise, the conductor suddenly knocked on the door and demanded the bed linen back. I had, admittedly, known he was going to do that, but it seemed a little early when there was still an hour and a half to go…. And then it hit me. Ukraine is an hour ahead of Slovakia and we had forgotten to set our watches forward!
There followed a mad scramble during which we frantically repacked our cases and tried to assemble everything into a manageable order for the rest of the journey. We hadn’t drunk all of the water we’d brought, but managed to stuff the remainder into our suitcases. In a way I was glad that we were in a rush because it gave me less time to worry about what was going to happen next. I had been corresponding with one of the congress organisers in advance, you see, and he had told me that it would be too difficult for us to travel from the railway station to the congress venue on our own. He promised that, if I told him the time of the train, someone would come to meet us and show us what to do. It sounded like a good idea and I duly communicated to him the time of our train… but I never heard anything back. So while I was hopeful that we would get off the train and walk right into the smiling face of an Esperantist, I wasn’t 100% convinced that this would actually happen. And I didn’t know what we were going to do if it didn’t.
Happily, it turned out to be another instance when I needn’t have worried. Within a couple of minutes of disembarking, we found ourselves being greeted by Oksana, a Ukrainian girl holding a sign saying “Esperanto”. Phew! She and her friend Sergej, who turned out to be two of the nicest people we met all week, not only guided us on the rest of our journey but paid for our tickets when we didn’t have any Ukrainian money and helped me carry my (very heavy) bag.
And what a journey it was! It was a tiring, confusing blur of new impressions. We emerged out of the main station into a bustling square and, amusingly, the first thing we saw was McDonalds. We dived down again into a metro station where the crush of people made it feel like the London Underground on speed, and squeezed into a tube for a journey of one stop to Universitet. Traveling up some horrifically long escalators, we emerged into the open air once more and had our first experience of a little yellow marshrutka bus, which bumped and swerved its way across the suburbs of Kiev. In total, it probably took us 90 minutes to travel the 10km to the kongresejo.
What awaited us when we arrived there is almost indescribable. First impressions were, admittedly, quite good. We approached a large building, with an attractive banner outside welcoming us to the congress. As we were arriving to the congress a day early, there was no akceptejo set up for us to register, but that seemed fair enough. Instead we were met by a smiling guy called Andrej who greeted us with “Saluton, mi estas komencanto. Do you speak English?” As a result of a truly bizarre decision by the organising team, a volunteer with a limited ability to speak Esperanto had been put in sole charge of the complex business of allocating Esperantists to rooms. We were perfectly happy to communicate with him in English, but participants of other nationalities were obviously less impressed, given that they thought they were attending an Esperanto congress.
Strictly speaking, participants had the option to stay in either a four-person or a five-person room for the duration of the congress. The majority of people were expecting to stay in four-person rooms, the five-person variety being a variation which had been introduced as an option relatively lately. Being slightly antisocial and not wanting to share with other people for an entire week, I had negotiated with one of the congress organisers in advance that Tim and I would pay extra in order to have a four-person room to ourselves. I was lucky that Andrej was nice enough to take us on trust when we explained this, and proceeded to sign us into a four-person room. The procedure took somewhat longer than you might expect, mainly due to the fact that he had to translate our names and hometowns into the Cyrillic alphabet for the elderly ladies behind the reception desk.
Eventually we were presented with a bundle of rather scratchy bed linen and led to the room that was to be our home from home for the next seven nights. Upon opening the door, we were greeted by something not entirely unlike a prison cell. There were three bare walls, with the majority of the fourth being taken up by a large glass window, inadequately covered by a light net curtain. As we were to discover in subsequent days, the light began to pour into the room before 5am and with temperatures of up to 40 degrees outside, by breakfast the room would already be swelteringly hot. It was possible to open the windows, but we soon learned that it wasn't particularly desirable to do so due to the prevalence of mosquitoes outside. Inside the room were four rather hard beds, a pile of itchy woollen blankets, one chair, a rickety desk and two small bedside cabinets. Sharing the space between two people was just about possible; sharing it between four would have been horrific.
Upon arrival I had two main objectives; firstly, to find a powerpoint to charge my phone which had unexpectedly died during the journey from Bratislava, and secondly to locate the bathrooms. The first objective seemed like the easiest to achieve, so I began looking around the room for a socket. I looked and looked and looked. Under the beds, behind the beds, behind the desk and cupboards. I was starting to think I must be going mad when there was a knock at our door and a German friend enquired whether she could use one of the sockets in our room, as she hadn't been able to find any in her own. It wasn't just me then! It later became clear than not a single bedroom in the building was equipped with electric sockets, and I was unable to charge my phone until we returned to Bratislava over a week later.
Decidedly unimpressed, I set off to find the bathrooms. Turning left from our bedroom along the corridor I soon came across a room which seemed promising, but there was no sign on the door (in any language) to indicate whether it was supposed to be male or female. Further exploration at the other end of the corridor revealed another bathroom, again with no visible sign. We asked a girl who appeared to be one of the organisers which was which in case there was some sort of Ukrainian system of which we were unaware, but she merely shrugged and asked "Ĉu gravas?" ("Does it matter?") in a tone of voice which suggested this was the most incredibly bourgeois question she had ever had the misfortune to be asked. In the end I gave up and used the first bathroom which I had found.
It was quite an experience. First you entered a large room which was kitted out with a row of washbasins but no mirrors, which made applying suncream later in the week rather difficult. This led onto a shower room, which did not feature anything that would be recognised as a shower in the UK. For a start there were no cubicles, and secondly there were no shower fittings, so that essentially there was just a wall with four hosepipes jutting out of it. I got a nasty shock - quite literally- when I turned one of these "showers" on and discovered that there was no hot water. I had admittedly read in my Ukrainian guidebook before setting out that there could be difficulties obtaining warm water in Ukraine during the summer, but organisers of the congress had publicly reassured participants that this would not be the case during the IJK in an internet forum only a few weeks previously. Hmm.
As for the toilets... well, there were four cubicles of which one had a functioning light bulb and (a different) one had a locking door. All of them were the Turkish-style toilets which are prevalent throughout Ukraine. For those of us not accustomed to using them, they were rather a struggle.
Somewhat disillusioned by our first experience of Kiev, we decided to have an early night and hope that things would seem better in the morning.